Mercy from a long way off

walking-homeTo illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons.

“A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.” ‘

“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.” — Luke 15:11-20, NLT

You’ve probably had this experience before. You’re going to meet someone you haven’t seen in a while and you’re full of anticipation. You arrive at the pre-planned meeting place a few minutes early and begin looking for a familiar face among a sea of strangers. One by one you eliminate them: too tall, wrong hair color, the clothes just don’t seem right. And then you see her, a long way off. Recognition. Joy. Your feet begin moving without having to ask anything of them as you close the distance between you.

In the story of the prodigal son, Jesus is telling us something about God that we often find hard to believe, especially when applied to ourselves. This father of the wayward son is a representation of God; the foolish and rebellious son is you and me. There comes a point in many of our lives when we become fed up with ourselves. We repent of our sin, of our rebelliousness, of our many stupidities. We repent and turn towards God seeking forgiveness and a new beginning.

But here’s the rub: even as we do this, we know we’re still a long, long way from God. We tell ourselves we have a lot of work to do to make ourselves presentable to God. Maybe we have to quit drinking first, or we have to get a job and start supporting our kids again, or we have to make amends to all those people we’ve hurt… We’re still a long way from God and we know it — and we’re pretty sure we’re going to have to clean up our act to make ourselves presentable.

Jesus’ parable doesn’t work that way. The prodigal son didn’t do much cleaning up. He was flat broke, hungry, deep-down dirty from tending hogs, living in the fields and walking along dusty roads in search of work. He came home looking emaciated and smelling of livestock.

But when the son was still a long way off, his father, who had been watching for him, spotted him coming down the road and started running towards him. In other words, God closes the gap between us.

We used to be stupid, disobedient, and foolish, as well as slaves of all sorts of desires and pleasures. We were evil and jealous. Everyone hated us, and we hated everyone. God our Savior showed us how good and kind he is. He saved us because of his mercy, and not because of any good things that we have done. God washed us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gave us new birth and a fresh beginning. — Titus 3:3-5, NIV

“He saved us because of his mercy, not because of any good things that we have done.”

At that moment when we realize that we are starving for something good, ravenous for something true, hungry for God, it’s a mistake to delay even a moment in order to try to make ourselves more presentable to God or to the church. It’s a mistake because God closes the gap.

At the very moment we turn away from tending swine, God sees us from afar and begins moving toward us. He is merciful beyond anything we have ever known. He loves us more than we can imagine. When we turn towards him, we see him already moving towards us, arms open, ready to welcome us home.

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  1. This is well said, and many of us need to hear it over and over again. There are several observations I would like to make, but I will make only one, hoping that I will not spoil what you have said for any of your readers. It is that some of us need to hear another side, which is the side that emphasizes how important our actions in this world will turn out to be when we stand before the Lord as Judge in the Last Day. Surely God wants us to know that he loves us as we are and is almost certainly more eager to receive us into his love than we usually are to enter there. Any time we spend in “preparation” is time poorly spent and will not yield the results that we are seeking. Only God can work the miracle we need. The other side of the question is what others have already said, that it is also true that God loves us too much to leave us the way he finds us when we come to him. We need the robe, the ring, the sandals, etc. We need the new life, the transformation to the new creation. And these are not merely icing on the cake. They are what being saved is all about — leaving behind the pigs, the pods, the prostitutes, the wild parties. It means learning to live in a new way, which is designed to get us ready to stand in that Last Day, when God will decide for each one of us whether we are fit to participate in his kingdom or not. I am distressed over how many people refer to the “Romans Road” as if that short list of verses were the message of the entire book. I am distressed about how, on our way to that Road, we lightly jump right over Romans 2:5-16, which is not a straw man or a foil but rather the introduction of the fundamental problem that the whole rest of the book is designed to deal with. There Paul even quotes Psalm 62:12 to support his principal contention that God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” God has a wonderful destiny planned for each one of us and for the whole lot of us together. But it would be possible to choose badly and to lose the whole thing, and I think that I am seeing people around me every day steadily moving in that wrong direction. Let us pray for wisdom to find the narrow gate that Jesus talked about. Let us seek above all else the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Let us put on, without embarrassment or apology, the new garment, washed in the blood. Let us regularly be doing those good works that God prepared in advance, so that we would do them.

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